Frank Zappa was one of those musicians that almost everyone’s heard of, but few readily know his songs. The legendarily eccentric musician who would’ve turned 75 today, was a radical musical outsider, releasing more than 60 records over his 30-year career, drawing from influences that spanned from classical music to free form jazz to rhythm and blues, often on a single album. At the heart of his prolific creativity, Zappa was also a renowned political activist. An outspoken proponent of the arts, he was both strongly anti-conformist and fiercely anti-censorship.
It was in the fall of 1985 that Zappa got his first big moment in the political spotlight. That year, a group informally known as The Washington Wives were looking to increase parental involvement over their children’s access to music. The group, which included Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, had a clear-cut goal in mind to put pressure on the Recording Industry Associates of America (RIAA) into a series of regulations, including voluntarily labeling albums that contained explicit lyrics or cover art, similar to the way the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rated movies based on content.
This led to the forming of a committee known as the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), who aimed to influence their set of standards within the RIAA itself. Armed with a list of songs known as “The Filthy Fifteen” (which included everyone from Prince to Judas Priest), the PMRC suggested that the RIAA create and enforce these numerous proposed standards themselves, which included everything from warning labels, lack of airplay for songs deemed explicit, and even to reassess the contracts of controversial performers in an attempt to discourage such behavior both on stage and on record.
Zappa, whose own discography defiantly blurred the lines between rock, jazz and classical music, saw himself as a pro-capitalist entrepreneur who believed what the PMRC was suggesting was nothing more than the beginning of watered-down censorship, which he believed to be in direct conflict with his First Amendment rights as both an artist and performer. Fiercely opposed to their proposals, Zappa, along with fellow musicians John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, testified to a Senate committee hearing to speak out against the intentions of the PMRC. While all three of their testimonies were important, it was Zappa’s that stole the show.
Reading from a condensed version of a prepared statement that was a scathing criticism of the PMRC, Zappa called the whole ordeal “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense” that “treated dandruff by decapitation.” He also readily suggested that the hearings existed solely for the RIAA to push through a blank tape tax, which they did that same year. Zappa opened by reciting the First Amendment, which he believed was in danger of being put through the “family paper shredder” should these proposed suggestions be put in place.
Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet training program to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few.
Not limiting himself to criticizing what he saw as blatant government overreach, Zappa suggested that the committee’s efforts would better be spent by focusing on music education in schools, stating that children had a “right to know that something besides pop music exists.” He went on to speculate on the kind of precedent that would be set by putting a voluntary ratings system in place, suggesting hypothetically that any material written by a Jewish performer could be released with a letter J on the front so as to “save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine.”
Despite Zappa’s staunch and forthright seriousness on the matter overall, there were some lighter moments, such as Al Gore professing his fandom for Zappa on a personal level, as well as then-Senator Jim Exon asking if he had performed with either Glenn Miller or Mitch Miller. Zappa, as it turned out, had taken some lessons with Miller’s brother as a grade-schooler. Exon laughed, calling it “the first sign of hope in this hearing.”
While his entire statement, as his followup back-and-forth with Gore, is filled with delightful, distinctly opinionated insights that can be read in its entirety here, there’s also a full 35-minute video of his testimony, which is absolutely worth taking the time to watch in full.
Along with testimony from Zappa, who disregarded the entire ordeal as political posturing, both for the aforementioned blank tape tax and to elevate the visibility of Al Gore prior to his presidential ambitions, Denver and Snider spoke about the misinterpretation of their lyrics. Denver cited his often misunderstood “Rocky Mountain High,” while Snider, too, spoke about lyrical interpretation, referring to the Twisted Sister song “Under the Knife,” which had been singled out by the committee. Snider maintained the lyrics were about a bandmate’s surgical proceedings, before adding that “Ms. Gore was looking for sadomasochism and bondage, and she found it.”
As a result of the hearing, the RIAA did agree to put the now ubiquitous Parental Advisory stickers on albums that they deemed to have explicit content, eventually leading to both ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ versions of explicit albums, the latter being packaged for big-box stores that would refuse to carry such albums otherwise. Interestingly, one of the first albums to receive such a warning label was Zappa’s 1986 release Jazz From Hell, which did a song titled “G-Spot Tornado,” though the album itself was entirely instrumental — echoing the 1958 censorship of Link Wray’s “Rumble,” which was said to have been over fears of inciting violence, despite it also being an instrumental.
In the years that followed, the PMRC inspired a number of off-color references across several musical genres, while Zappa, as always, took it one step further. Using audio excerpts of the hearing and setting them to Synclavier music for the song “Porn Wars,” Zappa included the track on his album Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers of Prevention, released in 1985, not long after the hearing itself. When not busy making music, Zappa remained as politically active as ever, appearing on programs like Crossfire where he continued to defend his right to creative freedom, as well as music’s role in society at large. A true believer in the Democratic process, he encouraged fans to vote throughout his career, and his 1988 tour even had voter registration booths, and had himself considering running for President in the 1992 election.
His political ambitions were cut short, unfortunately, as he was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer in 1990, and would succumb to the disease three years later. His wife, Gail, posthumously released Congress Shall Make No Law… in 2010 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the PMRC hearings. A spoken-word album that contains her husband’s entire testimony made in 1985, as well as interview soundbites of him speaking out against censorship at various times during his career. This included a testimony that the Baltimore native gave to the Maryland State Legislature in 1986, which itself helped to prevent a law that would have made selling albums with explicit content to children a crime, something he saw as a victory for himself and for creative freedom.
Gail Zappa has said that the album exists to serve as an educational work that represents the “tireless commitment to the First Amendment which he felt was his duty to protect by providing (in his words) ‘stimulating digital audio entertainment’ in the form of ‘material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress.'” Thankfully, his strong words echo loudly, even decades later.